What if Someone’s Keeping Score?
Like many, I’ve been watching the comedy series The Good Place over the last few years. The show is set in a heaven-ish place designed as an afterlife reward for, well, good people. It’s a show that actually manages to tackle some fairly weighty conundrums of moral philosophy (What is the nature of goodness? How is it achieved? What does it say about us that we so naturally understand life as an arena for moral scorekeeping) in a fairly interesting way. I’ve not yet watched the last season (hurry up, Netflix!), but so far, it’s been entertaining fare.
In light of the above, I was interested to see an interview with the creator of The Good Place, Michael Shur, on Ezra Klein’s podcast this week. The interview covered a whole bunch of interesting terrain, but one part stood out to me. Schur was asked what motivated him to write a show about being good. Was it a mostly abstract question that he was simply interested in as a storyteller? Was he personally trying to be good and failing? Moral philosophy is obviously not exactly normal half hour sitcom material, so what’s the story?
Schur’s response was fascinating. He said that he had always been drawn to aspects of daily life where someone behaves in a way that said to everyone around them that they believed they were better than everyone else. This was his “bugaboo.” Schur described himself as an “extreme rule follower by nature” and said that he has a very low tolerance for people who say, in whatever way, “I’m special, the rules don’t apply to me, you guys have to wait in line, you have to make sure you have twelve items or less in the express grocery line, but I don’t because I’m special and interesting.”
So, Schur said, the impetus for the entire show was a rather simple one: “What if someone’s keeping score?” At this point Klein stepped in chuckling, “So the show is kind of like a revenge fantasy?” Schur responded, “One hundred percent. That’s exactly what it is. You’re making a joke, but it’s actually true.” He went on,
The nightmare for someone like me who’s obsessed with rules is that it doesn’t matter—that we’re here on earth as organic creatures milling around and bumping into each other and then at the end of the day, at some point, your cord is snipped and you return to organic matter on earth and nothing you actually did had any meaning. You cut the line, you cheated on your taxes, you treated people badly, and it didn’t matter, you just get away with it. People ‘getting away with it’ is really what I’m fighting with the show because the entire premise of the show is that every little thing you ever did mattered, it had a point value and you got a score.
What if someone’s keeping score? An interesting question, that one. Many people have historically imagined God as a kind of cosmic moral scorekeeper, doling out goodies for the righteous and punishments for the wicked. In our days, where God has mostly left the building, we have proven only too happy to take up the task on our own. We relentlessly police the transgressions of others (real or imagined) online, calling out the sins that we detest and ignoring the ones that we cherish in an exhausting charade of moral preening and self-justification. Indeed, as the third decade of the twenty-first century approaches, it seems that moral scorekeeping is what the Internet is mostly for. We have always been obsessed with moral performance, whoever we imagine to be tallying things up at the end of the day.
But as I listened to the interview with Michael Schur, I found myself thinking not, “I hope someone’s keeping score” but “I am so grateful that someone’s not keeping score!” If life were solely about gauging our moral net worth to determine who would merit The Good Place, who among us would qualify? If every behaviour, every word, every motivation, every omission, every failure, every blind spot, every decision or indecision, every barely–concealed craving for rewards was scrutinized and assigned a moral point value? And whoever had the most points at the end of the game won? Sounds like a rather depressing form of naked moral capitalism. And it sounds like a game that we would all lose.
One of my favourite songs each year around this time is Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. There are few songs that I can think of that convey the depth of human longing and the beauty of the Christian hope as well as this one. There’s a line at the end of the second stanza that always strikes me:
By Thine all sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Christianity has always made the unpopular but, to my mind at least, devastatingly accurate claim that as human beings, our merits, moral or otherwise, are rather less than we imagine them to be. We are messed up creatures whose behaviours are guided by profoundly mixed motivations. We are not nearly as good as we think we are and even the good that we are able to do is laced with self-interest. Christianity has always said that it is Christ’s merit that raises us, not our own ethical performances and calculations. Which sort of sounds like pretty good and hopeful news. I am willing to put a lot more stock in Christ’s merits than my own.
Thank God that this story that we’re all a part of isn’t an arena for moral scorekeeping but a theatre of divine love. Thank God that we don’t get what we deserve—we all “get away with it,” on some level—but the gift of life that God freely offers. Thank God that in the kingdom that is to come, the first are last, the last are first, the guy who was hired at the end of the day gets what was promised just like the guy who worked himself into the ground, the tax-collectors and prostitutes cut in line on the righteous and observant, and the wretched and the outcast have a place at the banquet table. Thank God that we don’t look forward to a “good” place full of “good” people but a redeemed place where God’s will is finally and irrevocably written on human hearts, where true goodness is validated, where wounds suffered are healed, and where wounds inflicted are judged and remembered no more. Thank God that blood-red moral stains can be made white as snow.
And thank God that our ultimate destination is a place where our divine host doesn’t say, “Congratulations, you scored enough moral points” but “All is forgiven child, welcome home.”
Two things: I would be a little more careful about generalizations, Like “they do” or “we do,” as if “they” or “we” represent monoliths of sameness. Second, I think the development of a morality of human behaviour is far more clearly seen through the window of human evolution than through either our religious or secular theories. Morality is intertwined with the survival impulse and changes as the need for compromise, cooperation, reciprocation changes; the view of the appropriateness of certain survival behaviours has to follow reality. Morality is a moving object.
Tommy Douglas–purportedly a good Christian man–favoured eugenics; now the practice is generally considered abhorrent. Homosexuality was long considered a perversion; it’s quickly becoming normalized.
Thanks again for initiating conversation on very important subjects.
I was more interested in our human propensity for moral scorekeeping than on the obvious fact that morality changes, for better or worse, over time and that it it is bound up with our instincts for survival. I don’t think that evolution alone is nearly up to the task of explaining our moral impulses or their developments over time, but that’s probably another post. I’ve certainly written about it at length in the past on this blog.
Re: generalizations, I suppose I write this way not to point to “monoliths of sameness” but as an expression of the scope of my hope for the extent of God’s love and mercy.
Praise God!! …and thank you,Ryan 🙂
Thank you for this, Ryan.
What salvation looks like and by extension how that understanding impacts our choices, here and now, is likely the last Christian conversation of value, left to be had. Maybe it was the only one we were meant to have all along.
CS Lewis said something like, “Aim for heaven and capture earth in the process. Aim for earth and capture nothing at all.”
Personally speaking, all the, “score keeping” especially my own, breaks my heart. Where scores are being kept, forgiveness cannot exist.
May God continue to be with you and may you find His unsurpassable peace this Christmas season and always.
I wish the same for you this Christmas, Paul. Thank you.
(And I agree, score keeping and forgiveness cannot coexist… How miserable the former makes us, and how desperately we need to receive and extend the latter.)